Updated: 02 January 2016
I’ve posted a few images (here and here) from the penguin colony tour I took late last month near the bottom of the planet, more specifically on Martillo Island in the southernmost reaches of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego — so now a bit more about the trip itself. And as promised, lots more photos.
In short, stepping onto the shore of Martillo Island was among the more surreal sensations I’ve ever experienced. It’s not every day you find yourself nearly face-to-face with wildlife, on their turf and perhaps just a couple meters away. You feel like an intruder, even if a benign one who is only allowed to stay for sixty minutes and who cannot stray –at all– from carefully delineated paths and walkways.
As soon as you disembark after a brief 15-minute boat ride over the bumpy waters of the Beagle Channel, you’re immediately overcome by the sensation that you don’t belong on that rocky shore. Because you obviously don’t. At all.
You’re in a wind-swept unforgiving setting surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of oddly cute thigh-high creatures, most of whom are standing relatively still, blankly staring at the violent waves, their flippers flapping in the stiff winds. During your hour-long stay, you’ll notice that blankly staring from the shore takes up a great deal of their time. So does waddling about aimlessly. Not wholly unlike humans who vacation in seaside or island settings. But Martillo Island –Isla Yécapasela is its native Yagan name— was never a holiday resort.
It’s part of the oldest farm in Tierra del Fuego, the Estancia Harberton, founded in 1886. Since 1978, when the 50,000-acre ranch –mountains, forests, lakes and islands all fall within its property lines— was finally connected to by road, it’s been operating as a working nature reserve.
The penguin colony, established naturally in the early 1970s, has since grown into a seasonal home to some 3,000 mating pairs of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), who begin to arrive in late September and stay until the early days of April. Year after year, the breeding process goes something like this:
Males are the first to arrive, to either reclaim and prepare their old nests –small burrows, some up to two meters deep– or seek out a better spot to build a new one. By the time the nests are ready, the females arrive and scope out the scene, looking for their mate from previous seasons. Between the end of September and early November, they lay two eggs; hatching begins in the first weeks of December.
The newborns remain in the nests for about a month until they’re strong enough to begin wandering on their own nearby. At this point they’re nearly as big as their parents but clearly stand apart due to their juvenile plumage that blows in the Channel breeze.
By late January, when the juveniles are sixty to seventy days old and have nearly finished molting, the begin to swim for their own food. Once hunting is mastered, they leave the colony. Some will never return while others will come back year after year.
In late March or early April, the rest of the penguins leave to begin their annual northward migration. They feed at sea for more than six months until their return to the island in the spring.
There are also about thirty-five pairs of Gentoo penguins (Pygoscellis papua) on the island but they’re a bit more temperamental in the company of humans –can you blame them?— and are only allowed to be observed from a distance.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica), who makes an occasional visit. Our guide Anna told us that his presence isn’t advertised since no one is sure if its visit is a temporary one, or if he’s planning to summer on Martillo on a more permanent basis.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, while this colony is growing gradually each year, Magellanic Penguins have been classified as a threatened species, primarily due to oil spills which kill upwards of 20,000 adults and 22,000 juveniles each year. Climate change, which has displaced fish populations thus forcing the penguins to swim considerably farther distances for food, is also a factor. In all, twelve of seventeen penguin species are experiencing rapid population declines.
PiraTours is the only company with a concession to bring visitors to the island. Spots fill quickly, particularly during the (southern hemisphere) summer months. Booking in advance is strongly recommended.
Two departures daily, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., two groups of 20 people per departure time.
Meet at the Piratours booth at the tourist port in Ushuaia from where you’ll be shuttled, along with a bilingual guide. The trip is roughly ninety minutes one way; the first part of the journey is along Highway 3 east of Ushuaia for about forty kilometers and the last forty are on a secondary gravel road to the Harberton Ranch. The end-of-the-world mountainscapes are stunning. Trip includes a 45-minute bilingual tour of a fish and bird museum at the ranch. Also includes a pair of stops at scenic points.
Cost: Tour (round-trip transport and island visit) 450 ARS (approx 90 USD/67 EUR), plus 60 ARS (12 USD/9 EUR) Harberton Ranch admission. Remember that Argentina’s current high rate of inflation will render these figures almost meaningless within a matter of months, but the USD or EUR figures should remain relatively accurate. Never mind though, it’s worth every peso. Because unlike the penguins, you probably won’t ever be returning.
And finally, a 24-shot gallery: